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Evaluating the Bearcats’ Potential Opponents in the American Athletic Conference Quarterfinals

It isn’t exactly clear which team the Bearcats should hope to face on Friday.

2018 Continental Tire Las Vegas Holiday Invitational - Nevada v Tulsa Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images

The American Athletic Conference Tournament got started today at the FedExForum in Memphis, Tennessee. Luckily for the Cincinnati Bearcats, they are one of four teams that doesn’t have to deal with the first round. By virtue of their second place finish in the regular season, they were gifted a bye to Friday’s quarterfinals. That makes Thursday an off day rather than a game day, but it doesn’t mean the Bearcats shouldn’t have a vested interest in Thursday’s action, especially in the matchup between the 10th-seeded SMU Mustangs and the seventh-seeded Tulsa Golden Hurricane. The winner of that game will face the Bearcats on Friday, but which one would serve as a preferable matchup?

The easy answer is the Mustangs. They are the lower seed. Let’s not overthink this and I can just wrap this article up before it becomes much longer than a tweet.

If it only it were that simple.

Starting with the season series, the Bearcats swept both of these potential opponents, but not in the same manner. While they did need overtime to defeat Tulsa in the first meeting, they rolled to a 24-point victory at home in the second. Meanwhile, SMU gave the Bearcats a fight each time they faced off, losing by eight points combined. One of those games was played fairly recently as well, with the Bearcats just barely escaping Dallas with a 52-49 win on Feb. 27.

The Bearcats shot just 26.6 percent from the field in that contest, but SMU isn’t really a defensive powerhouse. The Mustangs are 225th in the country in adjusted defense, according to KenPom, and they are one of the worst teams in the AAC in defending the three (35.3 percent). Tulsa is producing a more average defensive efficiency (110.8 points per 100 possessions) and rank fourth in the AAC in opponent field goal percentage (40.9 percent). They can also cause problems in areas the Bearcats usually find as strengths. For example, they led the AAC in defensive rebounds in conference play. That runs in stark contrast to UC’s consistently excellent work on the offensive glass. These numbers force us to consider the Golden Hurricane the superior defensive team, even if they surrendered 88 points to the Bearcats earlier this year.

That slight defensive advantage doesn’t really make up for Tulsa’s shortcomings on offense. They are 155th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency even if they are shooting a respectable 45.1 percent from the field. SMU may be shooting worse than that (43.9 percent), but they are still somehow superior in points per 100 possessions (111.9), ranking 45th nationally.

A real factor is SMU’s three-point shooting. Although they are not the most efficient team from distance, the Mustangs are a top 100 squad in threes attempted per game and they score 34.2 percent of their points there, according to Team Rankings. In contrast, Tulsa only scores 28.8 percent of their points from three. That discrepancy is important for the Bearcats, who have had their share of troubles against three-point shooting. The total offensive differences are why SMU is actually above Tulsa in KenPom’s overall rankings despite being in the opposite position in the standings.

In addition, even though DaQuan Jeffries has been great this season, Tulsa doesn’t really have a scorer who can match SMU’s Jahmal McMurray. The senior guard is averaging 17.8 points and hitting 38.8 percent from three on eight attempts per game. He averaged 24 points per game against the Bearcats this season. As we’ve seen in March after March, sometimes all it takes to win a league tournament is for one elite scorer to get into a rhythm at the right time.

The wins and losses really throw a wrench in the numbers game we’ve been playing. Tulsa was far from a power in the AAC this year but the Golden Hurricane did win 18 games and go 8-10 in league play. Meanwhile, the Mustangs stumbled to a 14-16 finish while losing twice as many conference games as they won (6-12). Those marks were particularly dampened by a 2-9 finish to the regular season, even if some of those setbacks were by minuscule margins. That cuts out any potential momentum on their side entering the tournament.

So where does that leave us? Without a clear answer, but with some indication of what each team would bring to a potential matchup. For the Bearcats, they can either play a team that lets it fly from three but has been struggling lately or one that has a more defensive chops and worse results against UC this season.


Which team should the Bearcats hope to play in the American Athletic Conference quarterfinals?

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